Late June arrived and with it Western States weekend. After his commanding wins in both 2012 and 2013, Timothy Olson not being on the course came as quite a surprise to anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that he hadn’t ever really given trying for three-straight wins much consideration.
While Western States holds a special place in Timothy’s heart, so too do new challenges and wild landscapes. Last December, he made it through the Hardrock 100 lottery, ensuring that he had plenty of challenge and wild landscape to look forward as a replacement for making the done-in-day (or a-little-more-than-half-a-day in Timothy’s case) journey from Squaw Valley to the Placer High School track in Auburn, California. He thus spent the last weekend of June up high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado “connecting with the land“ and prepping for what is the most stacked field in Hardrock history.
Thanks to his 14:46:44 course record at Western States in 2012, an arguably even more stunning follow-up win in the brutal heat of last year’s race, and a number of strong performances in high-profile international events, it is all too easy to forget that Timothy is still relatively new to the world of ultrarunning. He ran his first 50k back in July of 2009 and his first 100 miler in September the following year at the Pine to Palm 100, the Oregon backyard race of Hal Koerner and the Rogue Valley Runners, who as a collective group more or less introduced Timothy to long-distance trail racing.
Interestingly enough, there’s an Oregon connection to Hardrock that placed the race very early on Timothy’s radar. He had moved to Ashland from his native haunts of Wisconsin in 2008 and by October of that year had fallen in with the area’s thriving trail running community. He ran often with Erik Skaggs whose brother Kyle, also living in the area at the time, had just rewritten the record books at Hardrock with a performance that bettered Scott Jurek’s previous course record by more than two-and-a-half hours. It’s a time that hasn’t been threatened since.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of talk about Hardrock and what Kyle had done there that found its way into conversations in Ashland that year. Timothy wasn’t immune to the buzz, “I guess that piqued my interest, the race and the mental, physical, and emotional challenges of 100 milers.”
After a couple of months of running with the locals, he ran a fat-ass event in January of 2009 and then in July finished sixth at his first ‘official’ ultra, the Siskiyou Out Back 50k. Later that same month, he paced Ian Torrence at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and had his first bird’s-eye view of what it was like to run 100 miles, “That’s kind of when the lights turned on for me. To pace for Ian and watch him suffer, for some reason it didn’t deter me from wanting to do it. It made me want to experience it for myself.”
That happened at the aforementioned Pine to Palm where the experience culminated in a first-place finish. He was hooked and his imagination, along with his legs, ran wild:
“When I got my first taste of doing a 100 miler, all of the ups and downs, I think that was the point that I decided I wanted to try the most difficult races in the world, the ones with the most magical scenery, and Hardrock was the one in the U.S. that I heard people talk about, saw people’s pictures, and just dreamed about doing ever since.”
Of course, there are a lot of people who dream about Hardrock, but a 140-person cap and 1,000 or more entries for those few coveted spots makes getting in far from a sure bet. Timothy came up empty on three occasions before landing an entry for 2014. A wiser and better runner for all that’s transpired, the amount of work he’s put in, and the perspective he’s obtained since he first threw his name in the lottery, Timothy couldn’t be much more relieved that his name didn’t come up until now. He offers with a smile in his voice:
“I don’t think I would have ever really understood Hardrock or should have even been allowed to run it until these last couple of years when I’d done a few hundreds and just know how to run them better and take care of myself in the mountains. If it had been one of the first ones I did, from an early qualifier, I would have just completely destroyed myself… which I still probably have a pretty good chance of doing. But I feel like I’ve done some challenging courses and been up on top of mountains and just have that overall experience of the body adapting to those different struggles and changes that happen out on a 100-mile race that I’m better prepared now for such an adventure.”
He has compiled a rather extensive body of work over the last four years which again likely contributes to the general sense that he’s been at this a lot longer than he really has been. Perhaps one evident sign of Timothy’s experience and the wisdom gleaned from it is his decision to dial back his busy race schedule to give his body a bit more time for recovery between marquee events and enable him to focus physical and mental energies on, for lack of a better phrase, goal races. “I know I can’t do as many 100 milers and I used to use more 50-mile races as tune ups for hundreds so I had that speed and a little understanding of where the race was gonna’ go, but with Hardrock, there’s just so much, the altitude, the climbing, the descending, all I can really do is be as prepared as possible.”
Part of that preparation includes having been in Colorado for the latter half of June, racking up lots of vertical in the mountains and previewing the course on his first trip to the San Juans. From a training standpoint, it’s specificity at its finest, but, cliché or not, it also just happens to be, outside of his beloved family, what interests Timothy the most. “I go off into the mountains and add up as much vertical as I can. I do that as training for Hardrock, but it’s also just what I love to do.”
For Timothy it isn’t just about putting in the miles either. It’s about truly learning the landscape and fostering a relationship with that place. He explains:
“I like to take it all in, with my hands, my skin, every sense that I can. I’ve traveled some this past year and the runs that aren’t satisfying are the ones where I really don’t connect with the land and then I’m just going for a hard run and trying to get a good time or go fast. With the San Juans, I’m going there to experience it to hopefully have it connect with my heart and have it be a place that I want to go yearly with my family, not just for the race. Living in the mountains, with the family and making that connection, having that be home for that time and getting myself at a good spot for the run.”
You can’t spend any time talking with Timothy and not know how deeply committed he is to his wife, Krista, and their young son, Tristan, and it’s no surprise to hear him reference their being with him in Colorado as part of getting him to that good spot.
In a world where people are quick to make rash and often uneducated accusations of so-and-so selling out or succumbing to corporate pressures, barbs he’s probably unfortunately heard since signing a contract with The North Face, Timothy is almost baffled by but absolutely grateful for his ability to earn a living in ultrarunning. Not only is he able to help provide for his wife and child, he has been able through the sport to have them accompany him to amazing places in Europe, Central America, and the United States, places they might not otherwise have been able to visit.
Being able to carve out time with the family has enhanced if not transcended the races that brought them there together and Timothy hopes for the same in the San Juans and at Hardrock, “It’s not just the one-day race, it’s the whole time getting to go with my family, hike up some of those big climbs with my son, and share those moments with my wife. Bringing that whole aspect of it, going to this whole new area to explore, really connect with nature there. This has been a really satisfying experience however race day happens.”
The ultrarunning world, of course, will very much be tuning in to see just how Hardrock unfolds and it’s no doubt fully expecting to see a competitive race. The small number of entrants and a lottery that makes no special allowances for elites has normally kept Hardrock from assembling too many high-profile names in any one year, but 2014 is a different story entirely, particularly on the men’s side.
Three of the last four winners return in the form of Jared Campbell, Julien Chorier (post-race interview), and returning champ Sébastien Chaigneau (post-race interview). Dakota Jones, Joe Grant, Adam Hewey, and seven-time finisher Scott Jaime are all back after strong performances over the last few years. In addition to Seb and Julien, there are two other notable international names on the list, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki of Japan and, fresh off establishing the fastest known time on Denali and wins of two Skyrunning World Championship races in June, Kilian Jornet of Spain. There are other names lurking on the entry list, too, names that in other years might be on the short list for podium contention.
The field is stout, to say the least, but so is the Hardrock course. There are already murmurings amongst outsiders and veteran Hardrockers alike that this could be the year that sees a lowering of the 23:23:30 course record, but no one is making any guarantees.
As five-time Hardrock winner Karl Meltzer said, “This is certainly a year that it could, but Kyle’s record is strong and I was there that year. I didn’t run, but I was watching it and what he did was he put a stamp on that thing and I don’t think it’s gonna’ go down easy.”
David Horton, winner of the first two Hardrocks and one of the sport’s all-time greats, adds, “You get enough fast people, good people, somebody is going to survive and that’s what it takes. The record’ll be broken, it’s just a question of when. Will it be this year? Maybe, maybe not.”
Course record or not, Timothy has perhaps as good a chance as any of those favorites of being that survivor and, like it or not, there are expectations that he will contend for the win. Pressed for comment on how he feels about those expectations and being included in the who-are-you-picking conversations, he responds like a Hardrock veteran rather than a naïve first timer:
“Ever since I started running, it’s always been about getting to explore new areas, new wildlife, wild places. If I’m ever not still inspired by the beauty around me, the creation around me, I’ll stop. Even though I work really hard and try to win races, winning races really doesn’t matter all that much to me. I don’t know. Even though I’m competitive in the racing scene now, it’s more about trying to push myself past what I thought was possible and when I go out for a run, every day in life. I just try to believe in the impossible and getting out there and pushing my body to the max is the best way to see it unfold, see the impossible come through.”
If you don’t believe in the impossible, you might want to revisit what happened at Western States a few years ago. And the year after that.
Timothy remembers, and in a few days he’ll step up to the starting line in Silverton with the same mindset he had in Squaw Valley in 2012 and 2013. “It’s time to go deep into yourself, connect with the land, and then see what happens from there.”
We’ll all be watching.
[Editor’s Note: For more on this year’s race, read our 2014 Hardrock 100 preview.]